How many training hours are appropriate for store-level workers?

Photo: Walmart
May 17, 2017

Steve Rowen

Through a special arrangement, what follows is an excerpt of a recent article from Retail Paradox, RSR Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers, presented here for discussion.

According to early findings from our annual Store Report, retailers think training their store personnel is fairly important, but there are serious snags in how much training those personnel receive — particularly at the store associate level.

According to early findings, about 32 percent of retail “laggards” believe 10 hours or less of training is adequate for new store associates. In actuality, 62 percent of new stores associates received less than 10 hours of training. That’s less than 10 hours to get new associates fully on-boarded and familiar enough with the company, its culture, its brand story and all corresponding tech systems and customer-facing matters to carry them through a full year.

Source: RSR Research, Not Yet Released 2017 Store Report

But even with retail “winners”, 18 percent say that 10 hours or less is enough training for a new store associate to receive each year. The question was asked in a vacuum, where money is no object.

The high number of successful retailers seeing this as appropriate is emblematic of a larger issue. Some consumers, for one single product, easily conduct 10 hours of online research before they enter a store. How is a store associate with less than 10 hours of training annually across thousands of SKUs expect to be able to compete with that?

The findings point to a similar lack of commitment to other positions:

  • Forty-one percent of winners say assistant managers should get 30 hours or more of training a year. They later reported that only 24 percent receive this level of training.
  • Thirty-two percent of laggards say managers should get more than 30 hours a year of training, however, only 19 percent reported they do.
  • And while everyone agrees that store associates are the key to returning the store to a place of relevancy in consumers’ lives, fully zero percent of lagging retailers report that their store associates receive 30 hours of training over the course of a year.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What should be the minimal and optimal number of annual training hours for new and existing store associates as well as assistant managers and managers? Has committing to training hours become more important at a time when consumers are empowered by online research?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"The fundamental mistake in this discussion is the assumption that HOURS = LEARNING."
"It’s not just the number of training hours being delivered, but the quality of the content and delivery of the content."
"...the bigger issue for retail leadership becomes, what does the industry want associates to do? What do we want to achieve?"

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14 Comments on "How many training hours are appropriate for store-level workers?"

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Bob Phibbs

As an owner of a retail sales training company, this is a bit misleading. Online retail sales training programs can allow for less time but more strategy. Where once you had to get into a classroom for hour after hour to get something to stick, retailers can now get bite-sized training of three to five minutes that only require associates to be off the floor for 10 minutes a week.

The actual content only has to be about an hour or so. There’s nothing magical about training. It’s not like the learner will find out the moon is really made of macaroni (Wow! that’s amazing!) It all makes sense. But understanding and doing are two very different things. You don’t train them for them to get it right once, you train them so that they can’t do it wrong.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

The question of how much training depends upon whether the retailer views staff as a labor expense or a strategic asset to differentiate store experience. If the latter, the hours mentioned in this article don’t begin to provide enough training that focuses on customer engagement and quality of service.

The most overlooked and neglected training in the retail industry is that of store and assistant managers. Many managers move up from floor staff. A good RSP does not necessarily a good manager make. Managers set the whole tone for the store experience … and they need the talent to develop others to do that. Training on how to manage, coach and lead needs to be ongoing at this level.

Mark Ryski

The amount of training required will depend on many factors including the type/complexity of products sold and the level of shopper engagement required. The quality of training provided must also be considered. It’s not just the number of training hours being delivered, but the quality of the content and delivery of the content. I believe that retailers need to re-think training in general. The focus of training should be on how to facilitate the sales transaction process and maximize customer conversion. Where depth of product knowledge is required, training should focus on how store personnel can access and acquire relevant information and they should be provided with the tools necessary to achieve this. Providing store personnel with 10, 20 or even 30 hours of training will not make much difference if the training is misguided.

Adrian Weidmann

I went to one of the largest DIY stores yesterday to enquire and get pricing for kitchen cabinets. Not only did I have to search for an associate but when I finally did get help and wanted to get pricing, the young woman pointed to her “in-training” badge and said she could not get access to the computer program as a trainee. I was told her associate would call me after she returned from lunch. Guess what? They lost a sale of roughly $3,000! Policy and pragmatic response need to be balanced. Training is certainly important but mentoring on the job may have more value to the brand and business.

Ian Percy

The fundamental mistake in this discussion is the assumption that HOURS = LEARNING. Or to really call it like it is: that hours of “training” = high-performing employees. This mechanistic mindset about human development is archaic.

On a mortgage application recently I was asked how many years of education I had. So I answered with how many years I was in school — which is a lot. More than Bill Gates! And that’s not counting the two years of high school I had to repeat. Truth is I didn’t really have the experience of true learning where I felt I was becoming something until graduate school.

There are employees who are somehow innately high-performing, thinking, responsive, innovative service providers. Frankly, institutional training will probably ruin them. Admittedly I’m not describing an alternative approach here. I am suggesting that we need to rethink what development means and how it happens. We put things into structured “hours” because it’s easy to control and measure. It just has little to do with human potential.

Kai Clarke

Store training of new employees should be a staged event. Being gun-shy with ample training when starting a new employee seems smart, but it actually adds to the turnover at retail (who wants to stay at a job where you feel left out, unprepared and like the focus of irate customers who need help?). Full training, shadow support and continued employee growth should be the focus of all stores in order to become successful.

Art Suriano
As someone who holds a patent on a training methodology, I see many problems with store-level training and hours allocated are only one of them. The first issue is that too many retailers insist on having their managers train the new store associates or other store associates teach them. The term “Buddy Training” is well known. The problem is that live training conducted by managers or other associates causes great inconsistency because people teach the way we do something and not necessarily the way the company wants us to. The other big issue is that even when stores provide more sophisticated training such as e-learning, often the training provided is dull and does not do a good job of teaching the store associate what he or she needs to know. Many retailers allocate the time as 10 hours, but because of the need to cover the store with enough associates, often those hours aren’t used and new hires are put out on the floor completely cold with little knowledge about how to assist customers. What’s… Read more »
JJ Kallergis
It is difficult to put an exact number of minimal and optimal hours on training. Retailers that invest more will likely get more from their associates given the right environment and culture. Clearly the matter of training has an associated cost-benefit relationship, so even if the survey was asked in a vacuum where cost was no concern, there could be some inherent bias in the answers which seem to be a bit surprising. And also given the high rate of turnover in retail, there is probably a general feeling in the industry that one should not invest too many hours in store associates that may not be there a couple months down the road. Rather than looking at training as something that is to be done at the beginning of onboarding or once a year, it should be something that is continuous and engaging for store associates and managers. Products, services and data are constantly changing, so the retailer’s first line of defense must always be armed to take on the highly-knowledgeable customer and add… Read more »
Tom Erskine
5 years 6 months ago

While it’s likely impossible to pin down a number, the survival of the store hinges on an increase in the investment in sales training for associates. If store staff cannot provide product insight and guidance to a consumer beyond what they get in other channels, there’s no reason to go to the store.

This increase in sales training must be offset by a reduction in the time spent training on operational tasks through the implementation of digital tools that provide a guided and tailored experience for associates and simplify the non-sales tasks associated with their jobs.

Dave Wendland

Let me be among the first to say that staff training is essential to demonstrate a point of difference and express a commitment to consumers. However comparing a consumer’s product research habits on a single SKU to an associate’s level of knowledge of the same is askew.

Retailers should focus on creating a knowledge bank of product information and THEN provide training on how to use tools to access the information. The best training should be based on empowering the associates not overwhelming them with endless talking points and senseless product features. Another aspect of training that is too often overlooked at retail is the enhancement of “charisma” (in other words — people skills!).

Steve Montgomery

There should be a clear understanding that training involves three separate areas. The first one is the initial training when an employee is hired. The extent of that training needed will vary based on the complexity of the retailer’s offer and the role the employee is going to be placed in. The second training should be when an employee changes job functions, for example when an employee is transferred to a new area or department of the store.

The third type of training is the ongoing training that happens regardless of the employee’s role or function. Most retailers fail to acknowledge the need for this and do a poor job at it. Products, processes, etc. change and, when they do, that means the employees who handle those areas need training on what this means for the customer and them.

How much of any of these three types of training is enough? Unfortunately, retailers usually only find that what they did is not enough when sales drop or an employee quits.

Julie Bernard
Beyond those initial 10 training hours (the segment in which the retailer engages associates on the purely practical level, about how to open/close a register, how to ring a sale, how to ship and the like) the bigger issue for retail leadership becomes, what does the industry want associates to do? What do we want to achieve? With the entire Internet at shoppers’ disposal, we have to think about ways of equipping associates to be as informed as the consumer that walks into the store. This is where mobile technology comes in; on-site tablets and devices that empower associates with fast access to detailed info. Also chatbot capabilities — available in a harmonious way at the product level — could be another interesting technology-oriented solution (not to replace the associate’s human touch but to augment it). Lastly, we should be focused on how the in-person experience makes consumers feel. When devising a training program, retailers must think about the behaviors that associates need to convey; all the ways they can evoke positive consumer feelings about the overall… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

Length of training time has nothing to do with the success of the staff member. Comprehensive, real-world situational enablement and empowerment are critical. Also, have management give ongoing and timely feedback throughout their career. Additionally, have them work in all areas of the store, and even work them in different stores when possible. The more experiential training you can provide, the better!

Min-Jee Hwang

Investing the time to properly train associates that are the first point of contact with consumers is one of those things that executives always say they should be doing, but rarely fully follow through on. Training sessions should be spread out over time with work experience to ensure it sticks and is properly executed. A bulk of extended training sessions contain too much information for the info to be retained and allow associates to fully process how to handle various situations.

Committing to training hours is more important than ever because of the research consumers can do online. When I walk into an electronics store and I know more in general than a store associate, it makes me not want to ask them for help or advice.

"The fundamental mistake in this discussion is the assumption that HOURS = LEARNING."
"It’s not just the number of training hours being delivered, but the quality of the content and delivery of the content."
"...the bigger issue for retail leadership becomes, what does the industry want associates to do? What do we want to achieve?"

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